The first article I wrote for my home town’s weekly magazine was a travel piece about Las Vegas. I’d recently gone on a trip there with a group of friends and had offered to write about it in order to get my first article published. In order to get my first byline, I was willing to throw out the old rule about what happens in Vegas staying there, obviously.
I had trouble sitting down and writing, though. Perhaps it was a way to recapture the feeling of my trip, but I ended up writing it all through the night. I was literally typing in my bed at 3 am, getting it ready for a deadline the following morning. By the time I handed it in, my eyes were red, my brain was mush and I swore to myself that I’d never wait until the last minute to write an article again.
Of course, I did the exact same thing when I wrote my next article.
Despite the fact that writing through the night had worked for me in college, I quickly realized that it wasn’t going to work as a professional on a weekly basis. I had family and social obligations that required me to be awake during daytime hours.
That’s when I realized that there’s something about the activity of writing that causes me to procrastinate. I’ve found this to be true of many writers. I think one reason for this is that writing can be exhausting. I mean that in a literal way - writing can be physically and emotionally draining. It takes a level of concentration, focus and determination that is hard to sustain for hours on end.
That’s why I believe that, like an athlete, you need to put yourself in a position to succeed every time you write. You need to have the right preparation, be in the right situation and rely on the right support networks to make sure your writing is as effective as possible.
Just like a team sport, your teammates are counting on your writing to help create desire and create paying customers, so it’s on you to deliver.
The ideas I’m about to outline here are part tried-and-true techniques, part my own personal preference. I’ve compared notes with many other writers in my career, and it seems as though most of us have found similar ways to prepare to write and cope with the weight of an empty page.
That’s not to say these techniques will definitely be helpful to you, but I’d wager that you’d be better off to start with them and discard the ones that don’t work than to start with nothing and figure out what you need.
Getting lost online, checking email and updating your status are always easier than writing. When sitting at a computer with an internet connection, distraction is always just a Command + Tab keystroke away. So not only will these tips help you get in the right mindframe to write, they’ll also help you overcome procrastination and stay focused.
Preparation is key
I’m much more likely to procrastinate if I have to make too many decisions at any one time. But if all I have to do is write, I’ll happily write. So before I sit down to my computer, I try to eliminate as much non-writing thinking I have to do, so I can focus.
I believe in the importance of outlining. One of it’s greatest benefits is that it allows you remove some worries (what you’re going to say) and focus on the task at hand (writing interesting copy). The less that you have going through your head, the more you’ll be able to concentrate.
You also want to think through what information you’re going to need and be able to get it at a moments notice. As part of the outlining process you interviewed various team members, so make sure you have those notes handy.
Any documents that you and the team have created in the past can be helpful, too. I find that services like Evernote and Dropbox make it easy to access this information without having to worry about keeping track of the physical paper it’s on. They also make it easy to work remotely and still keep everything you need at your fingertips.
Your happy place
I believe writing good sell copy comes from a place of confidence. In my mind, it’s even more than that. I think that to be able to write well, you also must be comfortable. Perhaps that’s why I retreated to my bed to write those first articles of my journalism career.
When it comes to the physical space and surroundings you write in, everyone is different, so find the place that works best for you. Whatever your preferred situation, what you want to make sure is that you’re minimizing distractions.
I know some people like a completely quiet room while others prefer the hubbub of a coffee shop. Music works for some people, not for others.
I know few people who like to to write surrounded by coworkers popping in and asking questions. And I haven’t met anyone who works well with a TV on.
It may take some trial and error, but find the writing environment that works for you. Head to the park, the coffee shop, the library, the storage room at the office…whatever works. Once you do find it, guard it with your life.
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The constant distractor
Sometimes when I’m writing, I’m thankful that I have an internet connection. I can look up more information about my topic, get the answer to a grammar question or look at sites to find inspiration.
Sometimes when I’m writing, I have to literally disable my internet connection. The impulse to check out what’s going on in the world, see what my friends are posting on Facebook or read something interesting on Fast Company is too strong.
I can usually tell by my internet usage if I’m working inspired or just going through the motions. When I’m constantly looking at sites that have nothing to do with work, I’m going through the motions and I need to buckle down. I don’t get to put off my deadlines until I feel more inspired, unfortunately. But I can eliminate some distractions by shutting off my browser window and unplugging.
I do find, however, that after I’ve written a section, I like to jump online and take a break, distract myself with some internet fluff. Then, after a minute or two, I go back and start writing some more. This is helpful to me, focusing my energy in short bursts. It’s kind of like running a sprint, stopping to catch my breath, then getting back on the track.
It’s important to never spend too long distracted online between writing sessions. If you need the break but get too sucked into the online abyss, turn off the internet and spend time looking out the window. Don’t sacrifice writing time for surfing.
Writing in motion
Once you’ve found the perfect spot to write, you just have to sit down and do it. The act of writing for many writers is the act of building up and then conserving momentum.
I have a few tricks for this. The first is that I always start each project off with a header. At the top of a page, I’ll include my client’s name on one line, the project name on the next line. If there is internal information that I need to share to help my coworkers know what it is they’re looking at, like a job number or the date, I’ll include that as well.
This information does serve a practical purpose: It helps everyone on the project keep track of what project this copy is for. More importantly for me, it gives me something to type first, without having to think about it. The act of sitting in front of a screen and just typing simple words helps get me into a mental space to start typing more meaningful words.
Then, I’ll take a look at the wireframes for the website and start working my way down. Usually I’ll start with the navigation. On my page, I like to put a header in bold that shows me and my colleagues (especially designers and programmers) where the copy goes.
So my navigation section might look something like this:
Where each of those words is a heading reading from right to left in the navigation bar.
Next I’ll write the words “Main Section” in bold, then Headline:. I like to come up with a few options for headlines, delete the ones I don’t like, then share three or four with my colleagues before deciding on which is the best.
I’ve found that writing out headline options with pen and paper frees me up to write better headlines. There’s something about seeing something perfectly typeset on a computer screen that discourages experimentation. On paper, I can cross things out, write in the margins, crumple up and throw away what I don’t like. It’s a less formal way to write, and that allows me to come up with more unexpected ideas.
I’ll still share headline ideas typed out, however.
Then I write the body copy, then CTA, all the way down the page until I’m done.
If I have a hard time writing, sometimes I’ll just write what I know is crap, just to keep my momentum going. I know I’ll return to it over and over again before I share it with anyone, so I just want to get the idea down in a very rough form. Sometimes I surprise myself and what I think is crap isn’t as crappy as I thought.